Station Eleven

As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I can’t believe this book never came up on my radar until now! I think I might have heard of it before, but never clocked exactly what it was about, and its title doesn’t reveal much about the contents. Then when I read that it was about a traveling troupe of actors, I may also have discounted its appeal to me. But so many people mention it on “What Should I Read Next?” (a Facebook group) when asked for good end-of-the-world fiction that I put it on my “want to read” list and finally got around to it this week.

Although the seed of the book is a worldwide flu pandemic, we don’t really learn much about that flu, because it is so deadly that there is no time for doctors to ponder origin, discuss cases, analyze it to reveal symptoms, search for a cure, or produce a vaccine, as people have done during our own pandemic that is (hopefully) slowly winding down.

In this iteration, the flu arrives in New York City on a plane from Russia; within hours, everyone who was on the flight is dead, and within another day or so almost everyone who came into contact with those carriers is also dead or dying. Medical personnel inform their loved ones, who tell their friends, and there is a mass exodus out of the city, which ends as each exposed person is overcome and passes it in turn to the next. Other planes come into other cities from other countries, all of which were exposed to the flu prior to the United States, and soon, even for the immune or the lucky, there is nowhere to flee. The entire world has been infected and overwhelmed, and civilization rapidly comes to an end. Planes are grounded, trains and cars cease to run as fuel runs out or becomes stale, the failure of electricity takes down all forms of communication and creature comforts, and soon the one percent of the population left standing is isolated wherever they happened to end up, in a dark and silent world.

The story begins when an elderly actor experiences a heart attack while onstage playing King Lear, on the eve of the pandemic. Strange connections to this man—the paramedic-in-training who leaps to the stage to try to revive him, the little girl who plays one of Lear’s daughters, his first ex-wife, who is the author/artist of a strange set of apocalyptic graphic novels called Station Eleven, his best friend from boyhood, and his second ex-wife and son—are the characters who tell the story, which reaches from the actor’s distant past on an island off the coast of Canada to 15 years into the future in the territory surrounding the Great Lakes, after the pandemic has decimated the world. The vehicle for the story is a band of musicians and actors (including that child actor who played a daughter of Lear) who have teamed up to travel a small route from town to town around the shores of Lake Michigan, alternating musical concerts and productions of Shakespeare every other night to keep themselves fed and give them purpose. The thing that makes the story so involving is how all the initial characters, so tenuously connected by this one man, end up in associations of which they themselves are unaware, and in possession of artifacts of one another’s lives. What is nice about the story is that although a few of these connections are revealed, thus providing some closure between certain players, the story doesn’t wrap up with a bow, but ends leaving some ironies intact.

Survival is insufficient.

STAR TREK

I loved how the story jumped from person to person and told their part of the story without pointing out the obvious connections, instead allowing the reader an “Ahah!” moment every once in a while. I loved the scene-setting descriptions of how the world has devolved, and how people respond to it depending on who they were and how old they were when the pandemic hit, and therefore what they remember. It seemed so realistic when parents would argue about whether they should continue to teach their children about the past with its internet, cell phones, and moon launches (or hey, ice cream and air conditioning!), or if there was little point in trying to explain such foreign concepts to those who would probably never experience them in this world that has returned to travel on foot, sleep cycles governed by the sun, and lives that are focused almost solely on survival. I loved the portrayals of lawlessness and violence set against the kindnesses and native courtesies preserved against all likelihood.

I love that I have discovered yet another post-apocalyptic story worthy of adding to my collection! And I am also excited because this book made me think of one that I read a long time ago but never remembered to log into my Goodreads list, and when I finally dredged up the author’s name from my sometimes spotty memory and went in search of the book, I discovered that after I read it, she wrote two sequels! That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and my intention is to read the sequels (Burning Road, and The Physician’s Tale) just as soon as my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA is over and I am no longer keeping up with my students’ reading schedules. June, here I come!

Diversity and superheroes

I just finished reading two books of a planned trilogy by April Daniels. I would slot them as young adult although, in the area of superheroes, fandom seemingly crosses all borders, including that of age. But since the protagonist is 15 when book #1 opens, and comes with a lot of the issues teens encounter, labeling them YA is plausible, whether or not the author intended that.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) follows the adventures of Danny Tozer. When the book opens, Danny is Daniel, an unhappy teen girl trapped in a boy’s body, with parents who adamantly refuse to see her for who she is or even contemplate the possibility of a transgender future. A miracle is shortly to follow, however; while hanging out alone behind the mall, Danny ends up on-scene at the murder of Dreadnought, a powerful superhero, and as he dies he passes the “mantle” of his powers to Danny. What comes with those powers is a transformation so epic that Danny’s life will be forever changed—she is gifted with a girl’s body as part of her new identity. Although becoming a superhero ought to be the most amazing thing that happens to a person, it is the realization of her secret dream of manifesting as female that is the overwhelmingly joyous news.

But Dreadnought was taken down by a “black cape” named Utopia, who shouldn’t have had enough power to faze him, let alone kill him, and now Danielle has to figure out how that happened and foil Utopia in her grand plan for the destruction of humanity. And she will have to do so while confronting the prejudice and paranoia of her parents, whose dearest wish is to find a “cure” that will turn her back into “their son,” a disillusionment regarding her best friend, who turns out to be an objectifyer when Danny turns into a girl (hey, eyes up here, dude) and, of course, her fellow superheroes in New Port, some of whom also have a problem with Dreadnought suddenly being a 15-year-old petite blonde.

This is such a fresh, wonderful, fun, and yet serious discussion of transgender in the context of fiction! The author shares the identity of the underrepresented and marginalized group in question, and in this series, the authenticity shines through. There is something for everyone here: While those who enjoy the cool powers, the fight scenes, and the trope of conflict between good and evil so characteristic of superhero books can revel in those things, there is also a lot of all-too-mundane psychology tied up with the issues of misogyny, abuse, identity, gender vs. sexuality, you name it. In addition to the transgender nature of the protagonist, we have her lesbian love interest, a non-binary superhero colleague, multiple people of color, and a villainous trans-exclusionary “feminist.” But none of these (well, with the possible exception of Graywytch, who turns into kind of a cipher as the plot progresses) is a stereotype: Danny runs the gamut of emotions—brave, terrified, powerful, weak, utterly secure, and totally lacking in self-confidence. The side characters are equally well developed, especially those who are in her inner circle of supporters and colleagues. The world-building is thorough, and especially enjoyable is all the focus on “hypertech” inventions.

I enjoyed the first book a little bit more than the second, simply because I love a good origin story, and Dreadnought dealt much more with the emotions and challenges of a 15-year-old transgender girl who is suddenly in the spotlight as the heroine of the city and has to work through all her personal issues with family and friends while simultaneously maintaining a public image and fighting crime. Sovereign landed more heavily on the superhero role and focused less on the personal, although it almost made up for it with the relationship dynamics among the main characters, including a little romance. And the ongoing question of the wisdom of taking a survivor of childhood abuse with anger issues and encouraging them to beat up on people (well, admittedly bad guys, but still) is also a powerful theme.

Having read these two, I would have felt completely satisfied with a duology; but Daniels is writing a third book to wrap up the secondary plot of Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it. This is a solid recommendation for a positive and delightful treatment of diversity within a fictional shell, not to mention a dynamic story line and an enjoyable read! I would suggest this for teens 14 and up, plus anybody who enjoys a good superhero tale. To discover other diverse books, visit https://diversebooks.org/.

Dragonback

Well, the proclivity for the devouring of extensive series does wreak a little havoc with a regular reviewing schedule!

I continued reading Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series through all six books and am finally back to report that it remains a charming and well wrought story arc that will appeal to lovers of science fiction, people who like a coming-of-age story, and those who are craving the adventure, hijinks, drama, and excitement of a “space opera.”

The parts are perfectly played by the humans—Jack and Alison—and the K’da—Draycos and, latterly, Taneem. The former are clever and wily, ingenious at dodging and weaving their way through a seemingly infinite number of challenges, yet also vulnerable and with the tendency to despair that young people who haven’t quite found their feet will fall into if left entirely to their own devices. But in this story, they are not—Jack has the poet/warrior K’da riding his back like a big golden dragon tattoo, and K’da is, in addition to being strong, resourceful and a heck of a song-writer, a stable, positive role model for Jack to emulate, in contrast to Jack’s Uncle Virgil, the good-hearted but self-serving conman who raised him.

Alison’s resources are a little more mysterious at first, and we’re never quite sure of either her motives or the identity of her allies as she and Jack meet and part during this complicated plot. While the only truly obvious bad guys are the sinister Vahlagua, operators of the Death ray and enemies of the K’da, there are a lot of other combatants in this field, emerging from the wealthy class, the government, from groups of mercenaries and land- and slave-holders, all of whose interests are somewhat aligned but none of whom can be trusted, and several of whom seem too familiar with Alison! Once she teams up with the innocent but fierce Taneem, however, Alison’s aspect begins to soften slightly, and the reader obtains glimpses of who they hope she will be in amongst all the trickery, as she and Jack draw closer.

The books are: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman, Dragon and Judge, and Dragon and Liberator, with Jack playing all those roles in his quest to save the K’da. Thus, in addition to the long-term goal there are many short-term ideas pursued as part of the solution, with Jack in turn learning how to be a mercenary, coping with capture and enslavement, shepherding some innocent bystanders while attempting to remain hidden from his foes, and acting as both arbiter and liberator.

The twists and turns that set up each book are beautifully structured to further exhibit both the evolution of the human characters and their strengthening bonds of empathy with their friends, mentors, and symbionts. The strategizing sessions amongst the characters are clever and lead seamlessly to the next adventure. And although the story occasionally bogs down just a little in the details of an individual episode, the momentum never fails to pick up again and carry the characters forward towards their goals. There are also plenty of exciting scenes of battle, both personal/physical and also using their weapons and ships in space to outmaneuver the conspiracy mustered against them.

Altogether, I have seldom read a more satisfying example of story-telling that will engage its intended readers. Librarians, booksellers, and parents, put this series on your list to especially recommend to your teens ages 12-16. (Add it to the books of Anthony Horowitz and D. J. MacHale as a great alternative for reluctant boy readers.) And fantasy lovers of any age, check it out when you want something clever, fun, and action-driven to read.

NOTE: Art is by https://kaenith.tumblr.com/ ©2017.

Genre assumptions

The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?

I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.

Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.

There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.

The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)

Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.

Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.

It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.

I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

Author vs. Genre

I picked up The Dream Daughter, by Diane Chamberlain, because it is a time travel book. But as I examined reviews on both Goodreads and in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” I found that I was a member of a tiny minority when it came to motivations: Apparently Diane Chamberlain is a big deal with a certain kind of reader, and many/most of the reviewers confided that they read this book despite its science fiction content, because they read everything by Diane Chamberlain.

My first thought was, Who doesn’t love a good time travel story? Apparently a lot of people! But since this is the one and only Diane Chamberlain novel I have ever read, I am judging her and her writing by the contents of this book about time travel, so my review will be differently framed than most.

When you type “If you like Diane Chamberlain…” into Google, you come back with a whole slew of names, most of whom are listed as authors who write “feel-good fiction with a twist,” “romantic women’s fiction,” and “hometowns and heartstrings.” There is also an occasional mention of historical fiction. But my experience of The Dream Daughter didn’t fit so much into those categories, perhaps because I was so focused on the mechanics of the time travel—whether the author would make it believable, workable, and without unnecessary paradoxes. And although the discovery of the mechanics of it were a little fuzzy, the carrying-out of the process was quite satisfactory. I don’t know whether she borrowed it or came up with it on her own, but the methodology is similar to that in the movie Kate and Leopold, in which the traveler must find both an ideal moment in time and a height off which to step in order to reach the proper destination. The portal timing and location is essential to the plot, since it is the main source of tension in the book—will she/won’t she (or he or they) make it to the location in time, will they land where and when they planned, and what happens when they run out of return options?

The plot begins fairly simply: Carly is a physical therapist in her early twenties. She helps Hunter, a previously uncooperative patient, to regain his health, and introduces him to her sister; he subsequently becomes her beloved brother-in-law. A few years later, in 1970, Carly learns two heart-breaking pieces of news: Her young husband, Joe, won’t be returning from the Vietnam War; and her as-yet-unborn baby daughter has a heart defect that will almost certainly prove fatal once she is born. The baby is all she has left of Joe, and Carly is devastated. But Hunter, a physicist, tells Carly there may be a way the baby’s life can be saved. If she believes him (instead of urging her sister to have him committed to the psych ward), Carly can take a leap of faith that may lead to a healthy daughter.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely more relationship fiction than it is sci fi, but even a “soft” sci-fi element can materially contribute to an otherwise regular story if it’s thought through and properly integrated, which this definitely was. There were a few unexplained plot points that remained puzzling to me (such as the impatience and coldness displayed by Hunter’s mother on several key occasions), but for the most part all the characters were well developed and understandable, as were the situations and narrative, and it has just the right level of suspense and complexity to keep you reading. It shares with books such as 11-22-63, by Stephen King, that dire warning about avoiding changes to history by minimizing interactions, but then (like that book) allows its characters to ignore that warning in certain circumstances, to the benefit of the plot (if not necessarily to history). And this was definitely a gentler read than that angst-filled tome, but no less enjoyable in its more personal focus, and with plenty of similarly entertaining historical details as well.

I feel like this book could appeal equally to fans of relationship fiction, time travel and, of course, to most Diane Chamberlain devotees! I don’t know if I would enjoy her other, “straight” fiction as much as I did this one, but I may give one a try after this.

Hits, misses, ?

This week has been a real mixed bag in the reading department. I started out with a book whose description was really exciting—A History of What Comes Next, by Sylvain Neuvel—only to end up with a did-not-finish (DNF) rating. I then started Beach Read, by Emily Henry, as some light relief, because my Kindle said I had read only 11 percent of it…only to realize partway through that everything was sounding quite familiar. And I finished up with a second book by an author where my first experience was excellent, only to realize that this was a different kind of story than I had expected.

The book by Sylvain Neuvel came highly hyped by many Goodreads folk. Having just finished 11-22-63 by Stephen King, it appealed to me as having a faintly similar premise: There were “people” (aliens) interfering with history to direct humankind to a particular path (in this case, leaving Earth for the stars). I am a big science fiction fan and, unlike some, don’t have a problem with hard science in my fiction. I am also a liker of alternate histories. This book includes science-heavy narrative, historical fiction, stuff about space exploration, a treatment of invisible minorities, mother-daughter relationships, and an intriguing take on aliens. It sounded perfect.

But…for me, at least, it was the most intriguing set-up with the most stultifyingly dull execution ever. The characters were one-dimensional, self-involved, and isolated amongst the true humans, so that you only got to know them through the conversations they had within their own minds. There was angst and personal insecurity (the protagonist is a teenager), a lot of violence, and not much in the way of story. The chain of mothers and daughters that culminates in this book with the 100th generation is relentless in pursuing their goal to send humans to the stars, but they have completely forgotten their origins, as have the other malevolent aliens who are sworn to stop them, so there is no interesting back story to be had, just the endless detailing of their day-to-day battle. Admittedly, I say all of this having read only 45 percent of the book, at which point I decided to cut my losses and give it a DNF. Goodreads people rave about some of the other books by this author, and maybe I will try one someday, but this one left me cold, tired, and impatient.

My experience with Beach Read was pretty funny; when I began it and started to get a feeling of déja vu, I chalked it up to having read books like it before. It wasn’t until a particular meet-cute scene that the light dawned and I realized I had read the book in its entirety about a year ago, and even reviewed it for the blog! I went ahead and finished the second read and enjoyed it this time around as well.

My third experience this week was The Mother-In-Law, by Sally Hepworth. I greatly enjoyed her book The Good Sister, particularly for the development of the character Fern, who really came to life on the page. That book, although billed as something of a thriller, turned out to be more of a family or domestic drama, although it had its tense moments at the resolution. With the description of this book, I was expecting more of a legitimate thriller, since the protagonist’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in murder…but that doesn’t end up being the case.

The book is presented (mostly) from two points of view—the wife, Lucy, and her husband’s mother, Diana. It is told by both characters in an equal division between “past” and “present,” the specific time periods sometimes not being noted but at other times being given as a particular year in the life. Because of the set-up, I was expecting a creeping sense of unease about the mother-in-law, culminating in her death and whatever would happen in the aftermath; instead, what is presented is two women with different goals and outlooks who are the victims, in their relationship with one another, of “unmeeting wishes.” Lucy lost her mother early in life and wants nothing more than to bond with a mother figure for a fulfilling relationship, while Diana is a rather aloof and self-contained person, due to her own background in which rejection played a large part, and doesn’t care to engage with Lucy in this way. Lucy sees Diana as cold and uncaring, while Diana regards Lucy (when she thinks of her at all) as self-indulgent and overly emotional.

The supposed central piece of the book—the murder—doesn’t factor much into the rest of the story, and the pool of potential suspects is small enough that I had a good guess fairly early on, though it wasn’t enough of a certainty for me to stop wondering until it happened. I frankly found that whole thread distracting—the book was trying to be too many things at once. There was domestic drama, there were specific agendas it seemed the author wanted to highlight through her characters—and adding the murder into the mix seemed like the author was trying to turn the path of this family saga in a direction it wouldn’t naturally go. (And presenting it as a fait accompli up front took any pizzazz out of its potential as a plot point!) The result, for me, was that I was alternately enthralled and bored, and in the end would have liked more back story and more relationship details and less of the somewhat forced nature of the “thriller” aspect.

I don’t feel strongly enough about it to wish I hadn’t read The Mother-in-Law, but it was definitely not the experience I was either expecting or craving, based on either the book’s description or because of my reaction to her other novel. She is a good enough writer that I will go on to try others of her books, but perhaps without reading the misleading blurb next time!

Ambivalence and vampires

After not quite embracing the witch book, I thought I’d give some vampires a shot, as my last read of October. But the one I picked…well, let’s just say it’s not what anyone would expect from a story about the undead.

Matt Haig’s The Radleys features a middle-class family living a somewhat suffocating existence in a small, declining village in North Yorkshire. Helen and Peter used to travel in the fast lane in London, but decided, once they married, to move to suburbia to raise their children, Rowan and Clara, who at this point are both in high school. Helen seems like your classic up-tight suburban mom, while Peter is showing signs of mid-life crisis in his yearning after his neighbor, Lorna. Rowan is painfully shy, has a nearly constant headache, suffers from various skin rashes, and is bullied relentlessly by the jocks at his school; Clara is trying to save the planet by going vegan, but nothing she eats seems to agree with her poor stomach, and she gives a convincing imitation of someone suffering from bulimia.

Despite her poor health, however, Clara still has the spirit of the rebellious teenager buried deep within her, and manages, in a moment of inattention from her father, to get permission to go to a party. This proves to be the pivotal event of the story: A drunken lout attacks her and tries to rape her, and she bites him on the hand with which he is covering her mouth. Suddenly, Clara is no longer feeling weak and sickly, and manages to fight back very effectively…because the one thing their parents neglected to tell Rowan and Clara is that they have made the choice for the family to live as “abstainers,” but what they are denying is vampirism! When Peter calls upon his brother, Will, an unregenerate blood drinker, to come sort out the tricky situation with Clara, their secret, restrained lifestyle is upended and new choices have to be made.

Well, first of all, I was somewhat disappointed because I picked out this book based on the name—I thought maybe someone had written the back story for the character of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird! (You have to admit that it would make sense for the pale and reclusive Boo to turn out to be a vamp!) No such luck. Maybe someone will write it someday, however, after this book in which the name “Radley” is revealed to be that of an old vampire family of natural-borns.

The premise of the book—that vampires could choose to be “vegetarian”—echoes the choices of the Cullens in the Twilight saga—no eating the neighbors, utter secrecy, etc. But in those books everybody gets to choose, while in this one Rowan and Clara are miserable because unaware of and without access to their true natures. Also, although everyone in the family (except the martyr Clara) eats a lot of meat, it doesn’t seem to be an option to drink animal blood, which I found peculiar.

The truth is, this isn’t so much a book about vampires as it is about bourgeois values: The well-behaved Brits are fighting their baser instincts in order to lead an upstanding existence by engaging in a lot of typical repression. What it is they are repressing is supposed to make it more interesting, but I felt like that in some ways they were just too stereotypical to make it work. The middle-aged malaise about sex with one’s long-term partner, the yearning over the forbidden neighbor (or wicked brother-in-law!), the hasty steps taken to keep what’s really going on a deep dark secret—even from their children—doesn’t explore much new ground. I was thrilled when Clara finally bursts her restraints, but that had to be covered up like everything else.

The various temptations that present themselves once the truth comes out result in both triumphs and tragedies for the conflicted Radleys, and there is an eventual resolution…but by the time it happened I had become wearied by all the dithering. The writing is both descriptive and clever, and there are some dark moments and some redemptive ones that appeal, but ultimately it felt like just another story about child abuse, with parents deciding for their children who they are to be without ever consulting them. That may sound like a harsh conclusion to draw, but when you find yourself applauding as the dainty teen protagonist takes large chunks out of the school bully, well…there’s just something not quite right about that!

The birthday of the world

…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.

LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.

She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.

Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

Monk and Robot

A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, was my first experience of reading a book with a protagonist who is nonbinary. That is to say, when the character is referred to by name, it is Dex, but when the character is referred to in the third person, it is they or them.

Although in theory I applaud the notion that one should not have to be constantly identified by one’s gender, the reality of referring to an individual in the plural drove me kind of crazy. I knew this book was supposed to be at least partially about robots, and when Dex was introduced and referred to in the plural, I initially thought that perhaps Dex was one of the robots and that they had a hive mind, so to speak, with all of them experiencing what Dex did and reflecting upon it as a group.

I eventually figured out that it was simply language intended to bypass gender and, indeed, when Dex meets the robot Mosscap, one of the first questions asked is, “Do you have a gender?” Mosscap answers no, and Dex replies, “Me neither.” So that was settled. But once the two met up and were sharing an adventure together, the third-person plural became particularly confusing because when the sentence talked about “they” or “them,” I couldn’t tell, except by concentrating hard on every surrounding word, whether that was referring to Dex and Mosscap, or just to Dex “themself.” (And is themself even a word?)

I have to say that the fact that this grammatical twist didn’t completely put me off the book is a testament to the author’s clever story-telling. I have spent my life as a grammar tyrant, and this new attempt to level the gender barrier is a difficult one for me to take on board. But once I got (somewhat) used to this narrative, I was wholly caught up in the life story of Sibling Dex, a devotee of Allala, whose current mission in life is to be a tea monk.

It’s not like working in a café and offering someone a top-up, it’s more like a mobile Japanese Tea Ceremony combined with therapy. Basically, Dex travels from town to town in a laboratory/home they pedal like a bike (but with solar motor assistance), sets up in each market square by creating an altar of sorts, puts the kettle on to boil, and waits for the people to come. Then, Dex asks each person what they need, the person responds with their exhaustion, their troubles, their questions or fears, and Dex blends them the perfect cup of herbs and spices to address that issue, along with offering such advice as they can muster for whatever the person requires. Sometimes it is concrete advice, but many times it is simply to sit with the issue and drink their tea and solutions will present themselves—or at least they will have had a nice rest and a hot cuppa.

The world-building in this book is so gradual that you don’t realize it’s happening. You come to find out that the planet is not Earth (although the description on Goodreads confusingly says that it is), it’s called Panga. But it shares a past similar to Earth’s, in that it was a technological world in which robots did a lot of the industrial work. At some point (a couple hundred years ago) the robots became sentient and decided that they did not wish to do this work any longer, and the humans (wiser than we would probably be) let them go. The robots dispersed, making a departing Pact that they will check in on the humans from time to time.

One night, just as Dex is anticipating a well-cooked dinner as soon as they finishes (finish?) their shower, that’s just what the robots do, in the person of Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Mosscap for short), who shows up and startles the wits out of Dex. This seven-foot-tall metal robot has a familiar question for Dex: “What do humans need?” and since Dex can’t even answer that question for themself, this begins an ongoing conversation between the two, as they also pursue other goals together.

I won’t say more than that about the story line; but the relationship and the dialogue between these two is both delightful and insightful. I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to compare this book to the late great Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but the conversations did remind me a little of the ones between Genly Ai and Estraven as they endured the dark night of winter alone together.

One Goodreads reviewer characterizes this author’s work as “comfort science fiction,” or “cozypunk,” because the worlds she builds are the idyllic ones in which people learned from the mistakes of the past and moved on in better directions. The reviewer describes it as “a philosophical dialogue in the setting of ecological paradise, a cozy version of Plato’s symposium held in the wilderness with some tea.” I had to quote this (thank you, Nataliya) because it so perfectly describes this good-natured novella. But just as many of us gravitate towards cozy mysteries or cozy love stories, there is a place for the optimistic science fiction novel in the midst of dystopian and post-apocalyptic nightmare, and this book fills that place. I look forward to the sequel, when Dex and Mosscap take their question to a wider audience. (Now, did that “their” refer to both of them, or only to Mosscap’s question? A grammarian can never be sure!)

NOTE: I had to come back in and change three gender referents after the fact! Old habits die hard…